We got an email the other day from a prospect (now a customer) asking questions about some wheels for climbing. Turns out he uses some light alloy clinchers on one bike and some heavier carbon clinchers on another, and one of his bikes is principally for training, and one is for racing, though even the training bike is race-worthy, and we've seen people commute on the highest end race bikes. After some email back and forth, we got to the bottom of how he uses his bikes and wheels, and were able to make a recommendation. The important questions we needed answers to had to do with how many bikes and wheelsets he had, and what they were used for.
This morning I was up early, switching the saddles between my white Wheelhouse and my black Wheelhouse, mostly because of my Dad. He sent two separate packages yesterday, one of which contained Christmas cookies and the other bacon. (Seriously.) The 20g weight savings in the saddle I just moved to the black Wheelhouse (my principal training and racing bike) suddenly seems mission critical. I also installed titanium bolts from a decommissioned stem and scoured the bike intently looking for places I could drill holes, like in my BMX days.
Anyway, while I was up the Twitter beeped and I came across this tweet from a guy we know, trying to decide how to get to work today. Another guy with more than one bike. It was at that point that the position Dave and I share on some of the big technology debates raging in cycling right now started to gel. There are a few big issues that have set tongues wagging on message boards, comments fields and social media over the past couple of weeks, and the lines are drawn pretty evenly on how each tongue wagger thinks of bicycle systems.
First there was the disc brake in cross debate, which Dave only just barely started to address in the 5,000 words or so here. He also touches on the announcement of Shimano announcing 11-speed shifting. And earlier this week, VeloNews sparked a new debate by summarily declaring that disc brakes are inevitable on road bikes as well (yep, that's Dave again, at the top of the comments field).
The proponents of these examples of ever advancing technology argue that the end product does constitute an improvememt. By and large, we agree. Dave has said repeatedly that disc brakes are indisputably superior for cross (and he is one of a small population uniquely qualfied to say so, having actually raced on them for a year), and who would possibly argue that 11 speeds on a cassette are not better than 10? Discs on road bikes are decidedly not the same Aha! revelation, but we'll set that aside for another day - some people earnestly believe their riding experience would be improved by them, and that's what is important here.
So let's say you're new to cycling and you're out shopping for bikes. You like both beer and sausage so you decide to start with cross. When you get to your local bicycle purveyor you can choose between a cross bike with cantis and one with discs. You compare the pros and cons of each bike and decide - like many in your position would - that discs are the way to go.
Or maybe it's a road bike you're looking for, and you can choose between very similar setups with either 10- or 11-speeds. You had to suspend disbelief in the cross example above by supposing the shop had both canti and cross disc bike in stock in your size, and you'll have to do it again here when I posit, for the sake of argument, that your 10- and 11-speed bikes are comparably priced. So all things equal, 11 is indubitably better. Get the 11.
When a single bike is its own system, compatibility is irrelevant. You don't care and maybe don't even know if your rear hub spacing is 130mm, 135mm or 141.666667 mm. The rear wheel that came with the bike fits into the dropout; the chainrings don't rub on the chainstays; whatever spacers and washers and bailing twine required to make it all work is already installed and functioning. Go out and enjoy your ride.
But the perspective that Dave and I have on bike systems is very different. A lot of our customers have more than one bike, so their idea of a "system" is how their entire portfolio of bike equipment works together. Wheels are a significant expense, and are also the component that requires the most strategic selection. If your road wheels suddenly cannot do double duty on your cross bike, some part of your system has broken down, and some of the utility value of those wheels - which may well have factored into your purchase decision - is lost. With 11 speeds and hydraulic brakes, other significant and expensive parts of your existing system also lose value when they cannot be transferred from one bike to another: cassettes, chains, shifters, derailleurs all end up relegated to a single bike system, useless across your whole range.
If it sounds like we've got an axe to grind here, look again. We're actually dulling our axe. We make bikes and wheels - if anyone benefits from a new standard that requires all of our customers to double their inventory, it's us, and other brands. Only the other brands are pushing really hard to introduce the new new thing, focused mostly on how many units they can sell of each. We're organized less around how many units we can sell, and more on how many customers we can satisfy. And we don't think customers sacrificing their retirement savings for single application tools makes a lot of sense.